If you’re going to do it, you might as well do it right. This applies to just about everything in life, and strength training is no different. It’s too important—and your time is too valuable—not to do it well.
Consider this quote from Chris Crowley and Dr. Henry Lodge’s terrific book, Younger Next Year: “Cardio training may save your life, but resistance training makes it worth living.” This illustrates the essential quality that strength training possesses. Cardio makes your lungs, heart, and blood more capable while strength training improves the bones, muscles and joints—making you feel better while you are moving and doing things.
Here are four common strength-training mistakes and some tips for turning these mistakes into successes.
1. Switching Programs Too Often (Often Called “Program Hopping”)
There are a many effective workout programs. There also are many great subjects you can study in college. What’s the connection? In college, you sign up for a class and then you attend it several times a week—for an entire semester. Obvious, right? Of course, this is the best way to gain sufficient knowledge and mastery of a subject for it to be at all useful.
Imagine a college that would let you change your classes every other week. You’d spend a no more than two to three weeks in each class and then change to new classes. Just as you’re getting to the point where you’re starting to actually learn something and get a little better at it, change happens and it’s gone. This is ridiculous! And yet, this is exactly what most people do with their workout programs.
No one gets out of shape overnight. It’s actually a relatively lengthy process of consistently repeating a combination of behaviors that result in physical transformation given enough time. And the exact same thing applies to what it takes to get in shape.
Yet somehow with strength training, the simple truth of what it takes to see progress is often abandoned in favor of jumping to a new program after a few weeks, because a radical transformation hasn’t happened.
FIX THE MISTAKE: Once you begin an effective program, get into it, do the work, and make sure to keep it steadily progressive so things get a little more challenging as your body begins to adapt. The rest of this article contains some great tips for doing just that, but no program will be effective if you don’t stick with it long enough to see results. How long is long enough? I recommend a minimum of four weeks, with a maximum of 10 to 12 weeks before changing programs.
2. Lifting…Without Shifting or Twisting
Most weightlifting exercises involve lifting, directly opposing gravity by moving resistance vertically up and down (e.g., squat, dead lift, shoulder press, pull-up). But in life, we lift, shift and twist things we hold, even if it’s just ourselves. We move through gravity, which means we have to deal with momentum. We live and move in three planes of movement, so a strength-training program in three planes of movement is essential.
FIX THE MISTAKE: We’ve done a great job of spreading the message that resistance training (“lifting”) is essential for fitness. Now we need to expand the definition of lifting to include shifting and twisting. The exercise options here are nearly limitless. Click here to view three great examples of these exercises from a full article I wrote on this topic.
3. Never Changing Your Speed
Strength training is great for developing muscle and aesthetics, but it’s equally important to do it for life in general. Life comes at you at different speeds. Sometimes life makes you move fast, like when you almost drop your cell phone. Sometimes life makes you move fast and unpredictably, like when someone bumps into you while walking down the street.
And yet with strength training, it is usually performed at a slow, controlled tempo out of concern for safety. Somehow, adding speed is automatically considered dangerous. Speed without skill is dangerous. But speed that is added to skill is the essence of moving in life and in sport. If all of your strength training is slow and controlled, then you’re not really getting ready for everything life can throw at you.
To be clear on terms, truthfully “strength” training is done for a low number of reps with high resistance (see next mistake, below). In common use, “strength training” and “resistance training” are used interchangeably, although the former is really a type of the latter. When you add speed, you’re training more for power or reactivity than strictly strength. But the ability to apply some strength quickly is what gets you out of most of life’s potential physical challenges.
FIX THE MISTAKE: Try moving a little faster while weight training—and perhaps even a little slower—than you are used to. The more range of speeds you train for, the more ability your body develops. Add enough speed that it challenges you in new ways, but not so much that it makes your movements too sloppy.
4. Lifting Too Little
A prominent “celebrity trainer” insists that women should never lift more than 3 pounds. Essentially, she’s telling every mother and grandmother to never pick up or hold her children or grandchildren. She didn’t say that specifically, but children obviously weigh more than 3 pounds. Where is the backlash? Unfortunately, there hasn’t been any because, when it comes to women and strength training, many still believe that any weight is too heavy. Despite the fact that countless articles and experts seek to dispel this myth, it continues to dominate the thinking of many people and, unfortunately, even some trainers. To get the benefits of strength training (or any other form of exercise), you must provide a stimulus beyond which the body is currently adapted.
The common fear that lifting heavier weights will make you too bulky is, like most fears, unfounded and irrational. It is exceedingly difficult to grow very large muscles, and even more so for women due to hormone differences between the genders.
Lifting heaver does not mean going from 10 pounds to 200 pounds, so concerns about safety are grossly overstated and unfounded. By steadily increasing demand, real gains in strength, muscle definition and physical ability are guaranteed.
FIX THE MISTAKE: Once you’ve been using a comfortably challenging weight for a while, try to beat your rep goal and don’t stop until you feel fatigued on the movement. Once you can do two or more reps than your target, you can be assured that it’s safe to increase the amount of resistance. If you’re concerned about going up too much, just progress to the next smallest increment. I’ll tell you a secret: Sometimes to drive this point home with a client, I will talk to them about something distracting while they are performing an exercise so they lose count and I have them keep going until they feel fatigue. I’m keeping track of the reps and when they are done I tell them how many they did. Many people are shocked when they double their target reps with a given weight!
Making real progress with strength training is not easy, but it isn’t the hardest thing in the world either. It’s much more challenging to life a live of decreasing strength, ability and vitality. All you need is the right mix of consistency and intensity. Yes, it’s a little tough. But you are worth the effort. If the human body can do it, it’s best to train for it. So lift heavier weights more slowly, lift lighter weights more quickly, and mix in some shifting and twisting along with your lifting, and you’ll be well on your way to strength-training success.